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Senior Health

Helping Families Combat Elder Abuse

Our nation is experiencing a crisis that is ­ shockingly — a dirty little secret few of us seem to want to know about.  Officials report that 90 percent of elder abuse actually is occurring in homes, not in institutions. And, unlike accidents, and lack of know-how, elder abuse is intentional, taking the form of physical, sexual, financial and emotional abuse/neglect, or a combination of these, and apparently it has become rampant in our parents¹ homes.

There is a huge gap between the idealized versions of older Americans ³aging in place² and the harsh realities of 21st century living.

Ninety percent of Americans over sixty say they want to remain living in their homes. If you are part of the one in four families who have seniors depending on you, you are probably struggling to find the time and money to keep your loved ones out of institutions. You are wanting to discover how to navigate the myriad governmental programs, health issues and emotional challenges of role reversal, while asking: what will it take for my parents to be able to stay safely and actively involved in their home, community and their own lives?

As a nation we need to make it a priority to better educate, better pay and better treat those who are caring for our loved ones.  Recently the Los Angeles City Council approved landmark legislation that raises the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020 and we are proud of our City Council for doing so.  We urge other legislative bodies to insist that there be better pay and also more relevant training for those caring for our seniors at home ­ both the paid and unpaid caregivers.

But with in-home care most frequently provided from a combination of paid and voluntary  — usually family — support, how will many of our aging population or their middle-aged children be able to afford the care and “senior-proofing” their environments and lives will need in order to “age in place” at home?

Moreover our homes are hardly the safe havens for older Americans we may have imagined or would want them to be!   The repeating dangers of living at home include: falls related to clutter, random rugs and insufficient equipment such as grab bars; living under the radar of the health care system; starvation and/or malnutrition; self-neglect; and the life-threatening harm that can be associated with under-socialization.

These leading challenges of aging at home are known by geriatric experts and even though they are commonsensical, family members often have been given no training or family coaching on to how to do better.  Many of the resulting incidents, although unintentionally damaging, are tragically preventable.

For every elder abuse case that comes to light, allegedly 23 other cases remain undiscovered.   If even a small percent of these horrible numbers is substantiated, that¹s a dirty secret that needs complete airing, prioritization and urgent funding of law enforcement.  Along with those reforms must come better training of family members and home health care workers about how to attend to those under their care.

Let¹s use our famous American initiative to design innovative programs.  At POP, for example (www.parentingourparents.org), we have taken the lead to create an intergenerational Family Coaching Program.  Family members, health and legal professionals, caregivers and others interested in a senior¹s wellbeing work with an experienced coach.  They gather, usually on Skype, when and as needed as the years go by, both to formulate loving, affordable, safe plans as well as to learn the skills family members need to support their loved ones as their minds, bodies and spirits age.

It¹s undeniable that our senior citizens are a treasure trove of soon-to-be forgotten family history, love, intriguing ideas and a way of being that make them special to us.  It is our responsibility to make sure that this precious resource is well attended to and well planned for.  And isn¹t it our duty to see that those who care for this precious resource have decent working conditions, pay that matches their responsibility and relevant training — as well as our continuing gratitude?

If we love our aging parents the way we say we do, isn¹t this the time for American families to draw back the curtain on these ugly, dark secrets and pull together.   Let¹s pay more attention to preventing harm and ensure the future wellbeing of our loved ones by taking a stand for better conditions, better pay and better training programs for all those who are caring for them!

Jane Wolf Waterman, a licensed psychotherapist,  practices in southern California. It was also out of necessity that Jane became the first POP Family Coach (PFC), pioneering a national program she created when she saw that many people were desperate for specialized help to guide them as they traversed this unique time in any family¹s life. For more information on how you can connect with POP, visit www.protectingourparents.org.